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A Christian doomsday cult in Uganda

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Accurate information about this tragedy is simply not available, for many reasons, including:

bullet The area is far off the beaten track for news gatherers.
bullet There are major cultural differences between reporters and local citizens.
bullet Relatively little past information about the group is known.
bullet Anti-cult groups have been superimposing their own beliefs, about high-demand religious groups, on the tragedy.
bullet Local forensic resources appear inadequate to handle the investigation.

The following represents our best guess at what really happened in Uganda. We will modify the essay as new information becomes available.

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At least 924 members of a doomsday religious sect in Uganda have died. The number of bodies increases daily and is expected to exceed 1,000 after the last compound belonging to the destructive cult is examined:

bullet About 530 in an intentionally-set fire that gutted their church in Kanungu, Uganda on Friday, 2000-MAR-17. Police have counted 330 skulls in the church; however, some bodies had been converted to ash. Almost all were burned beyond recognition. The dead included at least 78 children. The precise number of the dead will never be known.
bullet In the days following the tragedy, police discovered five pit latrines covered in fresh cement. One was opened. Public health officer Richard Opira said: "we found five bodies on the surface and when we shone a torch there were more underneath...They haven't been wounded so we think they were strangled or maybe poisoned." By MAR-21, six bodies had been removed: three had had their stomachs slit open; one had a crushed skull. Dr. Sam Birungi explained: "Some were beaten, some were burned, some were chemically poisoned then their bodies were dumped down in the pit." 9
bullet 153 bodies were discovered in another compound belonging to the religious group in nearby Buhunga.
bullet 155 bodies were unearthed in a mass grave in a sugarcane field in Fr. Dominic Kataribabo's estate at Rugazi. Some of the latter had been stabbed; others had pieces of cloth wrapped tightly around their throats. They appeared to have been dead for at least a month.
bullet Another 81 bodies, including 44 children were discovered on the farm of lay leader Joseph Nymurinda.
bullet A fifth compounds belonging to the religious group has not been investigated. As of 2000-APR-3, the police are waiting until they had collected proper equipment. They are asking for international aid in the form of expert forensic pathologists.

Most of the deaths occurred in Kanungu, a small trading center, about 217 miles (360 km) southwest of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Some individuals at the scene believe that the parishioners had committed suicide; others say that the group leader, Joseph Kibweteere, murdered the members by luring them inside the church and then setting it on fire. The church's windows had been boarded-up; its doors were nailed shut with the members inside. They sang for a few hours. One witness said that they doused themselves with gasoline and set themselves ablaze. Some witnesses reported the smell of gasoline at the scene, an explosion that preceded the fire, and some screams from inside the building. Jonathan Turyareeda, a police officer, said: "There were families inside, even small children." Fox News reported that the sect's leaders included three excommunicated priests and two excommunicated nuns. Some believe that the leadership all died along with the general membership; others suspect that a few of the leaders escaped. Some sources say that the members wore white, green and black robes. The Associated Press said that their  women wore white veils while men wore black, green or red shirts. 6

Before the tragedy, Kibweteere allegedly had said that he overheard a conversation between Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Mary had stated that the world would come to an end unless humans started to follow the Ten Commandments closely. The group initially believed that the end of the world would occur on 1999-DEC-31. During 1999, members had sold their possessions, presumably in preparation for the end times when they would be transported to heaven. They slaughtered cattle and had a week-long feast. When the end did not come, Kibweteere changed the date to 2000-DEC-31. Later, he taught that the Virgin Mary would appear on MAR-17 and take the faithful to Heaven. Devastation would then descend upon the world and the remaining 6 billion people in the world would be exterminated. They believed that they would experience a life much like Adam and Eve enjoyed: "no clothes, no cultivating, no work." 15 In preparation of the event, members slaughtered three bulls, and had a great feast on the evening before the tragedy.

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About the group:

bullet The movement was founded by excommunicated Roman Catholic priests: Joseph Kibweteere, Joseph Kasapurari, John Kamagara and Dominic Kataribabo; two excommunicated Roman Catholic nuns; and Credonia Mwerinde, an ex-prostitute.
bullet There are conflicting reports of the year in which the group was founded. Some say it was 1989; others 1994. They were registered as a non-governmental organization in 1994.
bullet Their school was shut down by the government in 1998 because of its unsanitary conditions, their use of child labor and allegations of kidnapping of children. 
bullet Estimates of their membership before the murder/suicide, range from 235 to about 650. 
bullet Most of the group's members were originally Roman Catholic. However, the group taught that the Catholic Church was an enemy, badly in need of reform. There own rules came from the Virgin Mary, as channelled through Mwerinde.
bullet The leaders taught that the Ten Commandments needed to be restored to their original importance.
bullet Medical care was discouraged.
bullet Members rarely spoke. They use mostly gestures to communicate, out of fear of breaking the ninth commandment (eight commandment for Roman Catholics and some Lutherans): "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." (Exodus 20:19; KJV)
bullet The group is located in southwest Uganda -- one of the most unstable areas of the world. Two separate programs of mass murder have been conducted in the vicinity: in Rwanda 800,000 lost their lives. There are estimates that under Idi Amin, as many as 500,000 Ugandans lost their lives. A civil war currently rages in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A significant percent of the population has died or is dying of AIDS.
bullet AOL has published excerpts from a handbook that was distributed by the group. It is called: "A Timely Message from Heaven: The End of the Present Time." 16

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Was the tragedy mass murder or mass suicide?

There is general agreement about some events: The membership appears to have anticipated being taken to Heaven by the Virgin Mary on MAR-17. They expected the end of the world to occur at that time. They slaughtered a cow, and ordered 70 crates of soda for a feast on MAR-16. They said goodbye to friends and relatives. 

bullet Mass suicide: There is one initial report, never unconfirmed, that the members had applied gasoline and paraffin to their skin before the explosion and fire. However, it is difficult to see how the observer could have witnessed these preparations if the windows and doors of the church were nailed shut. If confirmed, this would be one indicator that the deaths might have been the result of a mass suicide, similar to that of Heaven's Gate. The police investigation cast doubt on this sole witness; they found no signs of paraffin having been used at the church. Most of the world media initially emphasized the suicide theory. So did representatives of the anti-cult movement who are keen to promote their belief that mass suicide is a logical outcome of cult activity. They accuse cults of brainwashing their membership and reducing their will to act independently. Although their fundamental beliefs have been widely discounted by mental health professionals, the ACM has been quite successful in propagating their beliefs among the press and the rest of the public.
bullet Mass murder: There is a growing indication that the tragedy was a mass murder, not a mass suicide:
bullet Several news sources reported that the doors of the church were nailed shut from the inside. That might indicate that the leadership wanted to confine the full membership within the church in order to murder the entire group. 
bullet The discovery of additional bodies which had been murdered and buried in latrines near the church gives weight to the mass murder theory. 
bullet The discoveries of many hundreds of murder victims at other locations also point towards mass murder.
bullet Leader Kibwetere appears to have planned the tragedy in advance. He allegedly sent a letter to his wife before the tragedy, encouraging her to continue the religion "because the members of the cult were going to perish the next day.''
bullet The group's membership are almost entirely ex-Roman Catholic -- a faith that strongly forbids suicide. Traditional belief also very strongly forbids suicide. Finally, local belief is that if a person dies in a fire, that not only their body is killed but their soul is as well. This is the reason why evil sorcerers were once burned alive: so that they would be completely annihilated. It is very unlikely that if a person in this area wanted to commit suicide that they would choose death by fire.

Regional police commander Setphen Okwalinga said: "It's a criminal case; it's murder..." According to the Associated Press on MAR-26, "Government officials are treating movement leader Kibwetere as a fugitive and all the deaths as murder." Yet media reports and even this AP article still refer to the tragedy as a mass suicide. Some beliefs die hard.

A New York Times article reported that "The police originally suspected mass suicide by more than 300 followers found burned to death in a church in the town of Kanungu...But since then, more bodies have been found, a number with unmistakable signs of strangulation...Many [other] bodies have shown no sign of violence, leading some investigators to suspect mass poisoning. Increasingly, police are calling this an organized slaughter." 14

There is a growing belief that the deaths were precipitated by failed prophecy. When the end of the world did not occur on 1999-DEC-31, some members of the sect demanded their money and possessions back. This, in turn, may have triggered the mass murders.

According to the New York Times on APR-4: "Uganda's vice president, Dr. Speciosa Wandira Kazibwe, apologized for the government's failure to stop the cult before the deaths..."These were callously, well-orchestrated mass murders perpetrated by a network of diabolic, malevolent criminals masquerading as religious people," she said.

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Other violent religious groups in Uganda:

According to Massimo Introvigne of CESNUR, "Uganda is the home of hundreds of religious movements, many of them apocalyptic and millenarian. This is not surprising: Uganda experienced an apocalypse of its own with the bloody regime of Idi Amin Dada and the atrocities of the civil war. Apocalyptic movements in Uganda expect justice from the end of the world, not from politics." 7 

According to Reuters, "There is a history of fanatical religious movements in Uganda." These include:

bullet The Holy Spirit Movement, "an extreme and violent Christian cult," which formed in the late 1980s. "Many hundreds of believers died in suicidal attacks, convinced that magic oil would protect them from bullets of government troops." 4
bullet The Lord's Resistance Army succeeded the Holy Spirit Movement. The are also a Christian group. Their goal is to run Uganda on the basis of the biblical Ten Commandments. They have kidnapped thousands of children to be used as soldiers and sex slaves; they often commit atrocities against local people.
bullet Police in Uganda had disbanded another doomsday cult, World Message Last Warning in 1999-SEP. Leaders have been charged with rape, kidnapping, illegal confinement, and murder. 24 decomposing bodies were found at their headquarters. Wilson Bushara organized the group in 1995. He apparently preached communal sex and multiple marriages; all of the women in the group were considered to be his wives.

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Did the group show some of the signs of other destructive cults?

Elsewhere on this web site, we have an essay "Common signs of Destructive Cults." It provides a checklist of 11 factors shared by organizations that have lost membership in the past through mass suicide or killing. Although details concerning the Ugandan cult are still sketchy, they seem to have matched most or all of the indicators of a destructive cult:

The leader's preaching concentrates heavily on the impending end of the world, Present.
The group is expected to play a major, elite role at the end time. Present. They would be the only survivors at the end of the world.
They are a small religious group, not an established denomination. Present
They are led by a single male charismatic leader. Present
The leader dominates the membership, closely controlling them... Present. Prayer, location, food was strictly regulated.
The group (or at least the core members) lives together in an intentional community  Present - members lived in a compound.
Extreme paranoia within the group May have been present. Followers rarely spoke out of fear of breaking a commandment by talking.
Information and contacts from outside are severely curtailed. Present. Members were isolated for all but two or three months each year. They were often moved from one compound to another.
They believe that they are in danger, are being closely monitored and heavily persecuted.  Present. Members were told that Jesus and the Virgin Mary were closely monitoring thm and would curse any that deviated from strict behavior rules. 
The leadership assembles an impressive array of guns, rifles, other murder weapons or weapons of mass destruction. They may prepare defensive structures. Present
They follow a form of Christian theology with major and unique deviations from traditional beliefs in the area of end-time prophecy Present

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Reactions to the tragedy:

bullet 2000-MAR-20: The Boston Herald newspaper quoted Steven Hassan, a leader of the anti-cult movement (ACM). 10,11 The ACM has promoted the largely discredited concept that mind control techniques are widely used in new religious groups to psychologically abuse their members. He said that the Restoration group likely used mind control to strip members of their ability to think critically: "Most of them died willingly. But when you think about mind control, it wasn't their own will, it was their cult identity's will." Hassan apparently accepts the theory that the cult members committed mass suicide and rejects the theory that the cult members were killed.
bullet 2000-MAR-20: Workers using bulldozers, buried hundreds of charred bodies in a mass grave, along with the walls of their church.
bullet 2000-MAR-21: The Roman Catholic hierarchy distanced itself from the tragedy. The country's bishops said that the group's excommunicated leaders had "erred and broke the discipline of the church." The sect's members "were misled by obsessed leaders into an obnoxious form of religiosity completely rejected by the Catholic Church.
bullet 2000-APR-1: The government called a day of prayer on Sunday [APR-2] to ''console surviving relatives and assure the country that action is being taken in pursuit of the criminal perpetrators''.
bullet 2000-APR-3: Rumors have been circulating that two of the leaders of the group had engaged in human sacrifice and cannibalism. They allegedly murdered an infant each week and drank its blood. [Author's note: We suspect that this is an urban folk-tale. Fear of evil sorcerers who dedicate their lives to harming and killing others is well established in this area of the world.]

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  1. "Up to 230 members of doomsday sect killed un Uganda fire, police say,", 2000-MAR-18 at:
  2. "Doomsday: Up to 230 dead in apparent mass suicide in Uganda," ABC News, 2000-MAR-18, at:
  3. "At least 235 die in Uganda cult suicide,", 2000-MAR-18, at: 
  4. Gavin Pattison, "235 Doomsday believers perish by Uganda fire," Reuters, 2000-MAR-18, at: 
  5. L. Ochieng & W. Isabyirye, "Prophet sells tickets to heaven," 2000-MAR-18, at:
  6. George Mwangi, "470 feared dead in Uganda cult horror," 2000-MAR-19.
  7. Massimo Ontrovigne, "Tragedy in Uganda: The Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a Post-Catholic Movement," at:
  8. CESNUR has collected together dozens of news reports on the tragedy at: 
  9. "Uganda church distances itself from cultists: Ex-Catholic clergy blamed in mass suicide." Associated Press - Reuters, 2000-MAR-21
  10. J.M. Lawrence, "Uganda in shock after massive cult suicide," Boston Herald, 2000-MAR-20, at: 
  11. Steven Hassan, "Combating cult mind control," Inner Traditions Intl., (1990).  You can read reviews or order this book safely from
  12. Steven Hassan, "Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves,'' Aitan Publ., (2000), Read reviews or order this book
  13. Craig Nelson, "New find of bodies linked to Uganda cult," Associated Press, 2000-MAR-27.
  14. "More bodies found crammed in pit at cult leader's house: Death toll tops 600 as police focus on yet another mass grave," New York Times, reprinted by The Toronto Star, 2000-MAR-30, Page A10.
  15. Karl Vick, "Unearthing a nightmare: Doomsday cult leaders foretold 'rivers running red' -- but not ghastly mass murder." Washington Post. Reprinted in the Toronto Star, 2000-APR-2, Page B4.
  16. "Uganda Cult Handbook Excerpts," AOL.COM, at:

Copyright 2000
Originally written: 2000-MAR-18
Latest update: 2000-APR-7
Author: B.A. Robinson

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